Cultural Construction of Gender

Israel is perceived by Westerners, as well as most Israelis, as being a part of the contemporary Western world, thus sharing its binary view of gender. Despite this Western orientation, even secular Jewish society is relatively traditional, resulting in a more conservative definition of gender then found elsewhere in the West. In a comparative study of American and Israeli subjects, researchers found Israeli participants to be significantly more conservative, maintaining stronger stereotypes about homosexuality, femininity, and masculinity, and a greater gender role gap (Leiblich & Friedman, 1985). This conservative gender value system is rooted in Jewish traditions and religious beliefs that impact every facet of life in Israel, and is compounded by the centrality of the army in Israeli life (Azmon & Izraeli, 1993).

Israeli society puts greater emphasis on the centrality of the family, family values, and the mothering role of women in comparison with most other Western societies (Azmon & Izraeli, 1993; Safir, 1993a). This can easily be deduced from the average number of children per Jewish mother, which was 2.66 in 2000 (Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001), compared with only 1.87 for the average American woman in the same year (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Current social values encourage women to structure their identity within the context of the family so that they willingly put their careers in second place (Leiblich, 1993). Today women comprise over 54% of the labor force, but women's paid work is considered secondary to their husband's work (Fogel-Bijawi, 1999). The prototypical Israeli family generally operates well within the framework of traditional gender roles that are supported by social and state institutions. Whilst husbands may share some of the burden of housework and childcare, these areas are clearly regarded as women's responsibility by both women and men (Safir, 1993a).

The centrality of the traditional family is also evident linguistically. The Hebrew word for "family" (mishpacha) is usually applied only to the prototypical family of mother, father, and children (excluding couples with no children, single-parent households, and same-sex partnerships). Another example is the Hebrew word for "orphan" (yatom), which is applied even to a person who lost only one parent. The death of a parent entails a break in the prototypical family, and appears more socially significant in Israel then elsewhere.

Given this preoccupation with traditional family structure, infertility is considered a major tragedy. Every Israeli woman, without regard to an upper age limit, religion, or marital status, is eligible to request unlimited attempts at in vitro fertilization. Complete payments for these treatments are covered by her health insurance, until she has two children. The number of infertility clinics in Israel, per capita, is the highest in the world, with 24 units available to 5.5 million Israelis in the mid-1990s (Kahn, 2000). On the other hand, birth control is not covered by health insurance. Israel also grants special "birth allowances"; large families receive massive monetary incentives from the state (Safir, 1993a).

The Jewish religion, and its traditions detailed in a later section, is one of the major influences that result in great emphasis on family values. Orthodox Jewish patriarchal representatives hold immense political power (Gerabi, 1996), as well as directly influencing Israeli society and values (Safir, 1986).

An additional patriarchal epicenter in Israeli society is the army. As Israel has been in an almost continuous state of war since its establishment, the Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) is a primary influence on Israeli society as a whole (Gerabi, 1996). The army also overvalues narrowly defined masculine gender roles. Research describes this militaristic manhood as an antithesis to the stereotypical Jew from the European diaspora, who was viewed as feminine, weak, subservient, and helpless. Many of the early leaders of the Zionist movement strived to "restore manhood" to Jewish men by restructuring it to follow idealized images of European men, healthy in mind and body and willing to fight and die for the nation (Gluzman, 1997). This new "Israeli" manhood, replacing the old "Jewish" manhood, was embodied in two related images—the pioneer, enduring great hardships to reinstate the national home, and the warrior, defending the nation and commanding respect. In contemporary Israel, these ideals of self-reliance, national pride, and self-sacrifice are personified in the combat soldier, whose image constitutes this hegemonic standard of manhood (Lomski-Feder & Rapoport, 2000).

However, in recent years, there have been more opportunities for women to enter previously exclusive masculine roles in the army (Dimitrovsky, Singer, & Yinon, 1989), a trend that has now sparked off a political struggle between liberal and religious parties in Israel. Religious men have refused to serve in units in which women soldiers serve. Regardless of this public debate, ethnographic research demonstrates that greater integration of women in the armed forces is contingent on their assimilation into an all-masculine value system, while devaluating feminine gender roles to the point of subjectively breaking away from female identity (Sasson-Levi, 1997).

In this prototypical masculine world, women are viewed as contributing their part as long as they assist and support the (male) soldier (Bloom, 1993). In this militaristic sphere, women are given voice through their relationships with men who shoulder the strain of battle, via their positions as mothers and wives of warriors (Gillath, 1993). Thus women's protests had been viewed as illegitimate nor had women been perceived as entitled to any form of direct power or influence (Helman & Rapoport, 1997).

Zionist ethos also sustains the myth that in the early days of Israel's statehood, and in pre-state Israel, women and men were truly equal—an equality that meant sharing "male" activities. They are portrayed as pioneers: building settlements, paving roads, farming, and serving in the army (Swirski & Safir, 1993). However, women's integration in these activities was only partial; often they were rejected because they were women. Moreover, the majority of unmarried women worked as maids in the houses of the more affluent Jewish families during this pre-state period (Bernstein, 1987). The overall picture emerging here is characterized by strong pressure toward gender conformity, interlaced with a greater value placed on masculine gender roles (Singer, 1997).

Traditional values are even more central within the Arab minorities. A majority of the Arab population live in traditional cultural and social settings, a setting in which Western ideas about gender equality are frequently irrelevant (Lobel, Mashraki-Pedhatzur, Mantzur, & Libby, 2000). This is especially true for 70% of the Muslim population, who live largely in rural areas and have relatively little interaction with the Jewish majority (Al-Haj, 1995).

The Arab minorities are torn between two cultural vectors. On the one hand, they are linked, with varying degrees of intensity (Abu-Baker, 1985), to Jewish Israeli society, with its "modern" and "Western" aspirations.

On the other hand, they are allied with the traditional Arab world, which often opposes and resists the values of the contemporary West (Al-Haj, 1995). According to Al-Haj, Arab society is a developing society coping with changes associated with modernization and at the same time the constraints stemming from being a nonassimilating national minority in a Jewish state.

One result of these contradictory forces can be seen in the cleft between the conspicuous process of individual modernization within the Arab communities, and the persistence of conservative social values and reverential adherence to age-old traditions. While individual modernization is reflected in different fields (the rise of level of education, improvements in standard of living, wide exposure to mass media, and the development of a nationwide leadership), many traditional values persist on the community level (Al-Haj, 1995). The patriarchal/ traditional nature of this society is intensified by the subjection of this minority to national, political, social, and cultural oppression (Hassan, 1993).

In this cultural tug-of-war, gender issues are often viewed as an important bastion of authentic Arab tradition, a cornerstone of Arab culture (Soliman, 1985). Those who oppose the pull of Israeli Western-like values may be adamant in their rejection of any liberal or feminist notions. This complete rejection of Western gender-related values can be seen in its most extreme form in the murder of women in the name of "family honor". Although infrequent, such cases surface from time to time in Muslim Arab communities in Israel (Hassan, 1993, 1999). These killings are anathema to liberal values of women's (or indeed human) rights, but are still seen by some as an appropriate reaction to rumors, gossip, and knowledge of sexual misconduct that become part of the public sphere (Glazer & Abu Ras, 1994).

Tradition is also important in governing other less extreme behaviors regarding gender. Many Arab women are expected to devote their lives completely to their roles as homemakers in their extended family or clan (Hamula) (El-Mehairy, 1985; Lobel et al., 2000). In this cultural system, strict adherence to such social roles is usually expected of all individuals. In fact, poorer and less educated Arab women may perceive mothering as the only future role open for them (Shtarkshall, 1987).

In sum, Israeli Arab society is highly patriarchal and traditional (Hassan, 1999). Women are largely devalued by this social system, as is evident elsewhere in the Arab world (Crawford & Unger, 2000; El-Saadawi, 1980).

This is most true for the majority of Arab women, living in villages and Arab cities, who rarely have the opportunity to assert themselves in a more liberal context. Women who attain higher education, or live in mixed cities (where there is abundant contact with less traditional Jewish values), seem to be less willing to accept traditional roles ascribed for them by their patriarchal culture (Abu-Baker, 1985; Seginer, Karayanni, & Mar'i, 1990).

Gender over the Life Cycle Socialization of Boys and Girls

Israeli society, with its strong connections with Jewish patriarchal traditions, bestows higher status on boys from infancy. The Brit-Mila, or circumcision ceremony, held when the infant is 8 days old, becomes a celebration of the birth of a baby boy. This status is reconfirmed at age 13 when the vast majority of boys participate in a Bar Mitzva (coming of age) ceremony (described in more detail below).

School attendance in Israel is compulsory for both sexes from the ages of 6 to 16 and public school education is free. However, higher cultural regard for boys is evident in teachers' unconscious, but pronounced, preference for boys over girls (Ben Tsvi-Meyer, Hertz-Lazarovitz, & Safir, 1989). This preference impacts on the pupils' evaluation of boys and girls in the earliest years of grade school, so that girls also view boys as more outstanding when evaluating classmates (Safir, Ben Tzvi-Meyer, Hertz-Lazarovitz, & Kuppermintz, 1992). These authors have suggested that the unusual findings indicating boys' superiority on tests of both verbal and performance abilities (Safir, 1986), as opposed to girls' superiority in grade-point average throughout all levels of schooling, may be attributed to girls' insecurity in taking ability tests, resulting from this continuous cultural preference of boys.

In contrast to these unusual differences between Israeli boys and girls, the social experiences of children of both genders are generally similar. Unlike other Western countries, Jewish children of both sexes are encouraged, from a very early age, to play in outdoor settings. This early gregarious behavior, in combination with the mild to hot Israeli climate, makes playing outdoors a preferred activity for many girls, as well as boys. Such outdoor games are usually physical and lively, quite the opposite of what is expected of "girls" elsewhere in the West (Safir, Rosenmann, & Kloner, 2003).

Social interaction between the sexes also begins at an earlier age then in other Western countries, because of socialist norms, encouraging women to work outside of their homes (Lavee & Katz, 2003). As a result, day-care facilities are provided throughout Israel for children from age 6 months. For example, in 1988, 67% of 2-year-olds, 92% of 3-year-olds, and 99% of 4-year-olds were in some preschool setting (Izraeli & Safir, 1993).

Additional factors that mitigate behavioral differences between Israeli girls and boys are the "Israeli ethos" and the hegemonic Israeli narrative, which emphasized the importance of enduring hardship for the sake of the common national good. In addition, hiking throughout the country to experience it "hands on" is socially approved, often occurring under the auspices of one of Israel's many scout youth movements, where boys and girls take part in the same activities and are taught the same national values.

These activities, in which young Israeli girls participate, could easily be classified as "tomboyish" in the United States, but are simply the norm in Israel (Safir et al., 2003). Unfortunately, it appears that the ever-increasing cultural impact of American values on Israeli society is changing these gender-blind behavioral patterns. A recent study provides alarming evidence of one such possible negative cultural impact on Israeli children. This study reported an increasing spread of dissatisfaction with body image, as early as elementary school, in both girls and boys (Flaisher-Kellner, 2002).

Puberty and Adolescence

While most Jewish Israelis do not self-identify as religious, the majority participate in some religious ceremonies and traditions (Levi et al., 2000). The most notable example of such ceremony is the Bar-Mitzva, which is a religious rite signifying the transition from boyhood to manhood. Following his Bar-Mitzva, a boy is considered an adult man for all religious purposes. It is customary to hold a Bar-Mitzva celebration, to which hundreds of guests are invited for a six-course meal served in special reception halls. In especially lavish celebrations, one often hears the comment "the only thing missing was the bride." While the Bar-Mitzva is a grand milestone on the road from boyhood to manhood, girls' transition usually goes publicly unnoticed (Izraeli & Safir, 1993).

Another factor that maintains the spotlight on boys is the centrality of army in Israeli life, and in its definition of manhood. For teenaged boys, the army has a pivotal role in their transition into manhood and inauguration into the Israeli collective (Lomski-Feder & Rapoport, 2000). In light of looming military service, research has revealed that Jewish Israeli adolescent boys, unlike their Arab Israeli and American counterparts, see their future as inextricably intertwined with the future of their respective national collective (Magen, 1983).

In the Arab community, most teenagers do not serve in the army (Druze and Bedouin are exceptions). However, Arab culture is highly collectivistic because of the intense nature of family ties within this society (Lobel et al., 2000). This produces even greater demands for gender role conformity (Lavee & Katz, 2003). In fact, gender conformity is sufficiently strong in Arab adolescents to bias dramatically their judgment of a highly qualified, albeit feminine, male candidate. Research participants judged this candidate less favorably than an inferior masculine candidate. Judgment bias, based on normative gender roles, was much more pronounced in Arab participants than in Jewish participants (Lobel et al., 2000).

For teenaged Arab girls, this highly gendered culture demands their strict adherence to roles of sexual purity, which becomes central with the start of menstruation. Social supervision of these girls is meticulous, and their behavior is constantly scrutinized (Hassan, 1993).

Attainment of Adulthood

As was previously mentioned, mandatory army service has a pivotal role in defining the Israeli adult, and in particular the Israeli man. Army service, usually commencing immediately following completion of high school, replaces the American experience of "going off to college." For most Israeli boys, army service is the first time they have to fend for themselves away from their families and homes. Girls are usually stationed near to, and continue to reside in, their family homes.

In a more substantial sense, once in the army, young men are expected to make life-and-death decisions. While men are assigned to combat units, women have recently been "awarded" the privilege of volunteering for combat units. A minimal number of women currently serve in these units. This type of service places a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of the young individual, and is a distinct break from the years of schooling. Because boys and girls are drafted into the army at age 18, they are considered to be full-fledged adults at this age and are eligible to vote, purchase tobacco, and drink alcohol.

The army is an institution that overvalues masculine traits, and is especially relevant to the construction of the hegemonic Israeli man (Lomski-Feder & Rapoport, 2000). Men who serve in combat positions are viewed as the epiphany of masculinity, maturity, and character. These attributes supposedly make them romantically and sexually appealing to women, and indeed, a few years ago Shakel was a slang term widely used to denote a man's man, especially in a sexually context. (This slang term is an abbreviation of "fighting combative bull" in Hebrew.)

On the other hand, men who do not serve in the army are often ostracized by mainstream Israeli society, and are reinstituted as the "other" (Lomski-Feder & Rapoport, 2000). Numerous job offers require completion of army service, thus signaling clearly the line between the normative and the "other": the Arab, the dropout, the inadequate, the outsider.

Middle Age and Old Age

Israeli society's emphasis on familial ties affects the way that elderly people are viewed and treated. The majority of older adults live in close proximity to their offspring, and remain involved in their children's life as long as their health permits. Older parents are frequently consulted by their adult children. They also often take a role of secondary caretakers to their grandchildren, thus easing the load from the parents (Lavee & Katz, 2003). As parents become elderly, they often move in with their children's families. As a result, more then 95% of the elderly who are in good physical shape, and 76% of the disabled, live with their children (Brodsky, 1998; cited in Lavee & Katz, 2003). This appears to be especially true in the more traditional sectors of both Arab and Jewish society.

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